Return of the Puppets

Also the return of robotics, location shooting & well-loved spaceships

If you’re following along, this is Part 3 in our Force Awakens series. If not following along, feel free to also read Part 1 and Part 2

 

From the moment it started until the ending credits rolled across the screen, with all its other amazing achievements, one thing stood out to me about The Force Awakens: I was back in a galaxy far far away.

It’s a taste, a texture, an aura, a feeling that is quintessentially Star Wars. The Original Trilogy created it. The prequels wandered away from it. The Force Awakens found it again.

It first hit me in the opening scene. “Wow,” I thought. “They’re actually there—in a desert—standing on actual sand. Look at Poe and BB-8. That little robot is actually rolling around on the sand!”

This continued into the scenes with Rey when she got onto her hovercraft. It’s a simple moment but the level of interaction is essential. Daisy Ridley is actually touching a craft that looks and feels like what we, the audience, see instead of some green colored bench that will be changed into something else in post-production. Then, as Rey speeds across the sands of Jakku, a bird bangs its beak up and down on scrap metal. In the darkness of the theater I thought, “Wow, that’s good CGI!” My brain defaulted to that assumption for a second. Then I realized it was not CGI but a puppet and my little theater student heart (I studied puppetry alongside other things) beat a little faster with happiness.

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Look! An actor! In a suit! And it’s Simon Pegg!

Then the owner of the junkyard, who decides on Rey’s rations for what she’s collected, was an actor in a suit, not a computer generated creation. It’s a connection between two actors that was missing for so much of the prequels. As much as computers allow creative imaginations run wild, and as much as they contribute to and enhance movies, there is a tendency to rely on them too much or overuse when simpler solutions actually provide a more stable, visually realistic and believable cinematic experience. This is something the Original Trilogy did out of necessity. They created an entire galaxy with ingenuity. The prequels abandoned this entirely. The Force Awakens finds a happy balance between the two – recapturing that amazing feeling that can only be described as Star Wars while fleshing out the world in a way the Originals never could with the aid of modern technology.

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Lupita Nyong’o portrays Max Kanata

A perfect example for me is Maz Kanata. Could she have been a puppet like Yoda was in the original trilogy? Absolutely. And with the fantastic voice acting of Lupita Nyong’o the character would have come alive in so many ways. Yoda in the original trilogy is a triumph. Having studied puppetry, his scenes in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi never cease to amaze me. The detail in which the puppeteers create so much of Yoda’s character through seemingly simple movement and the limited expressions available to them is spellbinding. But motion capture technology allowed the creative team to transfer not only Nyong’o’s voice but her facial expressions as well to give the character that much more depth and detail of movement.

It’s an evolution—a merging of two styles to create something even more effective without abandoning what made Star Wars magical in the first place. More so than anything this is the feeling The Force Awakens gets right.

 

Continue to the final installment here